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Handle Problematic Employees With Care

When your organization hires someone, it’s important to ensure the individual is both qualified for the position and a good fit for your mission and culture. No matter how hard you try, you could still end up with a problematic employee.

The question then becomes: How should you handle the situation? The simple answer is: With great care, because the stakes are high both financially and for your employer brand.

Retrain Or Replace
If a staff member isn’t working out, you have three basic options:

  1. Retrain the person, perhaps under a formal performance improvement plan
  2. Transfer the individual to a different, more suitable job
  3. Terminate the employee and find a replacement


None of these options are easy, but the last one likely presents the greatest immediate risk. Taking an adverse employment action, such as firing, could lead to a costly lawsuitandinding a replacement will consume time, money, and resources.

Then again, confronting an employee about problematic performance or behavior can be awkward and contentious. What’s more, getting the individual to change for the better — whether in the current position or a new one — can take a long time.

Investigate The Matter
Before doing anything, investigate precisely what’s going on. Did the person materially misrepresent skills or experience during the hiring process? Have the employee’s actions clearly been unprofessional, unethical, or even potentially dangerous? If so, there may be defensible grounds for termination.

However — and this is the tough part — also determine whether your organization bears some responsibility for the situation. Many employers have room for improvement when it comes to onboarding and training.

Did your human resources staff, and everyone who participated in interviews, clearly communicate the job duties and performance expectations for the position? Was the employee warmly welcomed, thoroughly trained, and provided the tools (such as proper workspace and equipment) to perform well?

Ultimately, you want to identify the source of the problematic behavior or attitude. Often, the straightest path to resolution is to simply ask. Engage in an open, good-faith dialogue with the employee in which you state your concerns and openly listen to the staff member’s point of view.

Build A Case
Not all weaknesses can be fixed, however, nor every problem employee saved. Here are a few tips for dealing with particularly contentious situations:

  • Don’t let bad behavior or poor work slide because it sends the wrong message to everyone
  • Give a verbal warning in private
  • Be specific in describing the problems and expected improvements
  • Document the employee’s mistakes or wrongdoings, conflicts, and interactions with supervisory staff thoroughly and over a long period
  • Train supervisors to avoid anger, even if the employee responds emotionally
  • Ensure the employee understands what changes need to occur

Generally, employers can establish better legal footing for termination if a measured, documented, step-by-step approach to performance improvement is undertaken rather than a sudden firing. Contact your attorney for further details and help with a specific matter.

Don’t Put Up With It
Some organizations tolerate problematic employees for years, often because they have hard-to-replace skills or close relationships with key customers. However, over time, these individuals will likely impair an employer’s financial results and ability to hire or retain good workers. That’s why it’s usually best to address the matter right away.

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